A Yale researcher spends two years riding around, documenting the rules of "social disengagement."

Those of us who ride public transportation on a regular basis appreciate the sometimes-peculiar experience of being alone together. We all want as much privacy as the confines of a crowded subway car allow, which often means totally ignoring another human whose clothes are brushing up against your own. Maintaining order in a tight public space often requires us to pay others the respect of pretending they don't exist.

The sociologist Erving Goffman once called this type of behavior "civil inattention." Goffman's term covers fleeting interactions, such as riding a few stops on the subway or passing strangers on a city sidewalk. But what about situations where people are pressed together in a confined space for longer periods of time, as on intercity transportation? In this case our isolation takes a step forward and becomes active "social disengagement," according to Yale University doctoral candidate Esther Kim. 

Kim rode the Greyhound bus for two years documenting the rules of social disengagement. In a description of her experiences, set for publication in the journal Symbolic Interaction, Kim says we distance ourselves from others by putting on a "calculated social performance" that lets strangers in a shared public space know that we don't want to be bothered. This behavior is intended to keep us safe and undisturbed in an "otherwise uncertain social space," she concludes: 

In such spaces, people exhibit nonsocial transient behavior; they intricately design and carefully coordinate interaction rituals by avoiding people nearby and slipping into a personal space of the self. ... 

For Greyhound patrons, the combination of passengers’ transient nature, fear of potential danger, physical exhaustion, and confinement in a small space without privacy cause people to actively disengage.

From 2009 to 2011 Kim traveled Greyhound between various cities across the United States. Her trips included several long-distance routes, including Connecticut to New Mexico and Colorado to New York, which required her and fellow passengers to share their relatively cramped public space for days at a time. During her travels Kim took notes on interpersonal behavior and occasionally took part in a natural conversation but never forced any exchanges.

Kim documented the "unspoken rules of conduct" that govern personal interactions on the intercity bus (though Amtrak riders will recognize many of them). First above all is the custom of not sitting beside someone when an empty row is available. The next goal is to sit beside someone "normal." While everyone defines that word differently, the general Greyhound mindset is that it's someone with good personal hygiene and a non-intrusive personality. As one rider explained to Kim:

You don’t wanna sit next to a crazy person, a fatty, a chitchatter, and especially not a smelly one. … You also don't wanna sit next to someone who just charged up their phone because you know they’re gonna be on it the whole time.

Once passengers acquired a seat they began their performance to dissuade potential row partners. They avoided eye contact, stretched their legs to cover the open space, placed a bag on the empty seat, sat on the aisle and blast earphones, pretended to sleep, looked at the window blankly. They also contorted their expressions into the "don't bother me" face or the "hate stare," writes Kim, borrowing the latter phrase from Goffman. When sharing a row was inevitable, riders sometimes inched over and made more room for someone who seemed to fit the "normal" mold. 

Riders policed these rules of conduct themselves. In one situation noted by Kim, a young woman confronted an older man who was disturbing the quiet of the bus by speaking on his mobile phone, and they nearly came to blows. "She was upset not only because he was talking on the phone, but also because he was breaching the unspoken rules of the space," writes Kim. In the end the outburst reinforced the unspoken code, with no one else speaking up the rest of the trip.

Kim offers two main reasons for this type of active "social disengagement." The first is safety. News like the 2008 Greyhound rider who stabbed and beheaded the person next to him serves to confirm stereotypes about the existence of "crazies" on board, writes Kim. The end result is a general atmosphere of isolation; in Kim's experience, a person would rather sit on the floor of a Greyhound station than ask someone to remove a bag on a seat.

The second reason is a general aggravation and exhaustion that comes with the Greyhound experience. Some of this comes from lack of sleep: even if you're lucky enough to have a row to yourself, the bus stops every few hours and makes passengers get off. Some comes from delays or breakdowns. On one trip, Kim bought a ticket for an 11:15 a.m. bus that didn't leave until 4:20 p.m. The experience is so common that other passengers didn't even complain, she writes:

In this situation, individuals seem to figure that the best way to deal with the frustration is to retract. … Waiting passengers are upset and in no mood to socialize.

Kim acknowledges that not everyone adheres to these rules of disengagement, as we might call them, but says the people who socialize on Greyhound are the exception not the rule. "[T]he longer the passenger travels with others, the more he or she will abstain from interacting with others," she concludes. "These nonsocial transient spaces are not social spaces and individuals in this space simply expect to get to their destination."

The phenomenon identified by Kim may apply uniquely to Greyhound and not universally to intercity travel. There are certainly signs of social disengagement on trains and planes, but not to the extreme that Kim describes, and spontaneous camaraderie on these modes is much less rare. Then again it seems worth noting that flying and riding Amtrak are highly controlled experiences: flying, through seat assignments and intense security, and riding, through multiple conductors and the ability to change your seat at will. What Kim found on Greyhound may be active social withdrawal, in part, but it might also be an attempt to impose stability on an environment that to some degree lacks it.

Photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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